Cinnamon and spice, and everything nice!
Cinnamon is known as the eternal tree of tropical medicine. Belonging to the Lauraceae family, Cinnamon comes from the bark of a tropical evergreen in the cinnamomum genus and includes plants such as bay, laurel and sassafras. There are over 250 plant species in the cinnamon genus, and three of them are important to Geek+Tea and our blending.
Cinnamon is one of the most important spices used daily by people all over the world. Cinnamon primarily contains vital oils and other derivatives, such as cinnamaldehyde, cinnamic acid, and cinnamate (yes, I love big words). In addition to being an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, antimicrobial, anticancer, lipid-lowering, and cardiovascular-disease-lowering compound (geeze, this stuff is great!), cinnamon has also been reported in laboratory trials to have activities against neurological disorders, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases besides its use in our daily culinary routines.
The spice itself comes from the inner bark of the tree, which grows more like a bush or willow shrub, about 10 feet tall. The harvest is a somewhat sustainable process as a small limb about 2-3” wide is cut a foot from the ground using a machete, which later grows back for another harvest in 5-7 years.
I was lucky enough years ago to visit a permaculture spice farm in Costa Rica and was able to see the entire process from harvest to cup. And it is a labour intensive harvest which is why blends that contain cinnamon are far from fair-trade and organic farms, meaning they carry a premium price and always have a very low labour cost. It is extremely difficult to source organic, and fair-trade which are not always mutually inclusive.
Cinnamon is harvested when the rainy season begins. In Costa Rica this would have been May to November, I had visited in March so was not in harvest season. The advantage of this is that the plant is in its active growth stage and the sap within the tree rises making it easier for the outer bark to be stripped away while the aromatic compounds are also most concentrated. Using a hand scraper, the hard outer cambrian is removed to reveal the softer inner bark. For a branch that is 2-3” and 5’ long this could take anywhere from 5 - 25 minutes to do this. A small knife is then used to strip away the thin inner bark, layering and rolling it up together like a cigar before it is cured in partial shade. These curls were set on nets in the upper part of spice houses. But the most magnificent part about the cinnamon harvest happens before all this - when you walk through the forest and step on small plants releasing the scent of cinnamon into the air.
There are two main types of cinnamon: cassia and ceylon.
You will recognize cinnamon by their common names: Ceylon cinnamon, otherwise known as the “true” cinnamon, and cassia cinnamon.
Also known as “true” cinnamon, this variety is derived from the bark of the Cinnamomum verum tree, “verum” being Latin for “true.” This species originated and still grows in Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon, hence this variety’s common name). This type of cinnamon is preferred in England and Mexico. C. verum is light brown in colour and has very tightly curled sticks.
Ceylon “true” cinnamon has a low volatile oil level (between 1-2%), which means it can lose its flavour rapidly after it has been ground so when we purchase we always purchase in large chips and curls.
The flavour profile of Ceylon cinnamon is delicately floral and citrusy. The flaky bark is commonly used for making tea on its own. It does tends to be more complex and slightly bitter in comparison with the other cinnamon varieties and pairs well with non-competing flavours, like vanilla, maple, honey, or simple baked goods. It can also play a supporting role to chocolate, citrus, or savory dishes where a hint of warmth is needed.
Cinnamomum cassian (Cassia)
Cassia cinnamon tends to be more popular with our Southern neighbours, the United States, and can be divided into two further categories: Saigon (Vietnamese) cinnamon and Korintje (Indonesian) cinnamon. This is the cinnamon you'll most likely see in grocery stores. It has a grey to almost dark brown colour with only a single curl to it.
Saigon (Vietnamese) Cinnamon
Grown in (you guessed it) Vietnam. Saigon cinnamon is the strongest variety of cinnamon. It is prized for its bold flavour due to the very high volatile oil content meaning more flavour and when mixed with other strong spices like cloves and nutmeg, it stands on its own. Saigon cinnamon will be warm and fresh, but with lingering spicy flavour so it is best used in curries and cinnamon rolls.
Korintje (Indonesian) Cinnamon
It’s what you probably found in grammy's pantry growing up, and what you’ll commonly find at the grocery store. This is the most widely found cinnamon on the market with its sweet-spiced notes, and its ability to be used with everything from pancakes to curries, oatmeal and apple crisp. Because of its widespread use it is also considered the cheapest cinnamon on the market. But that is not to say it doesn't have its place.
So can you guess which type of cinnamon would be in your cupboard, or what you are buying from the shops?
Would you be able to pick out the type of cinnamon we use in our teas?